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A love of verbal expression has long been characteristic of Arab culutre. Oral poetry flourished during the Jahiliyya1 among both nomadic and sedentary Arabs, and with the birth and rapid proliferation of Islam, Arabic poetry, both sacred and secular, continued its popularity among conquerers and conquered alike. Formulaic expression is an essential component of verbal art among the Arabs (see Monroe, 1972; Sowayan, 1985:110-113), although great emphasis is also placed on verbatim memorization of oral and written literature (see Sowayan, 1985:110-113). This is especially true among Muslim Arabs, for whom memorization of at least portions of the Quran is extremely widespread; it is not uncommon for believers to commit the entire holy scripture to memory. Of the numerous formulaic forms in the Arabic language, probably the most pervasive is the proverb. The first portion of this essay discusses the general position of proverbs in Arab culture; the next part surveys briefly the study of Arabic proverbs; finally, the latter pages explore native classification of proverb-like forms, and suggest lines of inquiry for further study.

Proverbs in Arabic Culture.

Both classical Arabic and the dialects are rich in proverbial lore. As H. R. P Dickson observed earlier in this century, "The Arab is forever quoting proverbs or sayings of some poet or other, and he seems to enjoy this almost as much as story telling" (1951:336). Abdelkafi writes that "one might claim that [the Arabs] make more use of proverbs than most other nations" (1968:vii). Whether or not such a claim could be supported by objective evidence, the fact remanins that the Arabs believe their language to be, as befits the language of Paradise, the most eloquent, subtle and beautiful of all tongues, whose wealth of expressive power cannot be matched. The masterful orator, whether poet, conversationalist, politician or proverb user, garners respect through linguistic skill; the form and delivery of a message are at least as crucial as its content.

Respect for linguistic prowess is a long-standing characteristic of Arab society, institutionalized in the poetic duels of tribal and court poets, bot pre- and post-Hijra.2 Poetry was, in pre-modern Arabia, recognized as a potent weapon for bolstering the reputation of one's own group and diminishing that of a rival; indeed, poetry is still regarded as a powerful tool for social and political commentary. Similarly, Arabs take "vast pride... in being able to invoke proverbs when the need arises" and pay great respect to "any person who is capable of using these sayings correctly" (Barakat, 1980:7). Evaluations of "proper" usage are based on two criteria: sufficient familiarity with proverbs to enable a person spontaneously to evoke an appropriate proverb, and skill in correct application of the proverb to the situation at hand. The respected Arabic proverb user has both an extensive repertoire of readily recalled proverbs and a sense of appropriateness and timing.

Dickson notes in reference to proverb use among Bedouins that "Not only does this practice give spice to conversation, but the person quoting clever sayings, and so forth, knows that he gains in the estimation of his fellows for showing himself a scholar and well read" (1951:336). Dickson's characterization of Bedouins as well-read scholars is somewhat misleading in view of the high level of illiteracy among them, particularly two decades ago when he wrote; nevertheless, learning and wisdom are greatly admired in Arab culture, although they need not necessarily be institutionally derived. Barakat suggests that, coupled with the reverence which Arabs have for their history and traditions, this respect for wisdom helps explain the frequency of proverb use in the culture, for the proverb is the linguistic embodiment of traditional wisdom. Like proverbs in other cultures, Arabic proverbs "bear the stamp of approval from tradition and are thought to express best one's thoughts on many occasions" (Barakat, 1980:11). 

H.A.R. Gibb suggests that the widespread use of proverbs in general conversation "in the East as in the West" has been dealt a fatal blow by the influence of "modern: --meaning Western-- education, and that "the younger generation are rapidly losing their father's memory of and taste for proverbs" (Gibb, 1938:xxxix). Without accurate contextual data on current use of proverbs in Arab societies it is impossible to make any firm judgments, but Gibb's point is debatable in light of available evidence. To begin with, Gibb rests his assertion on an implicit assumption of decreased illiteracy due to proliferation of formal education in the Arab World. In fact, while the ranks of the educated have increased in recent decades, so have the ranks of the illiterate increased in many places because population grows faster than the educational system.3 Furthermore, Arabic proverbs are used as a device in modern literature (see Risk, 1981:186). As for conversational contexts, Mahgoub reports that traditional performance of proverbs was still common less than twenty years ago; she found subjects in their twenties quoting proverbs in conversation without knowing they were under observation (1968:2), although she does not indicate the educational level of these subjects. Thus, while it is possible (although far from certain) that conversational use of proverbs by Western-educated young Arabs has decreased, these same individuals remain passive (and possibly active) bearers of proverbs as folkloric items and active bearers of colloquial proverbs as literary devices. In addition, because a large proportion of the overall population remains illiterate, proverbs are both viable and vital in contemporary Arab societies. Finally, there are several speech forms in Arabic which, in native generic terms, differ one from another and have usually been studied separately. They are in many ways similar, however, and bear investigation as related phenomena.

The Study of Arabic Proverbs.

Compilation of Arabic proverb lore began toward the start of the Islamic era (the seventh century A.D.), or perhaps even prior to that time. C. Brockelman observes that "Proverbs excited the interest of the learned from the very beginning of Arabic literature; historians and philologists emulated one another in collecting and explaining them" (1913c:408). During the early period of Islamic expansionism, as the rapidly growing empire subsumed many areas and peoples of the East, an active school of Arab philologists sought to preserve the verbal heritage and protect the language from non-Arabic influences by recording what they could of ancient usage, including proverbs and related forms of expression. In fact, almost all the noted philologists devoted special works to proverbs (Brockelman, 1913c:408). The result was an extensive literature on Classical Arabic proverbs, probably running to hundreds of volumes and containing much vital information on pre-Islamic Arab culture as well as proverb texts (Goldziher, 1966:35; Nicholson, 1953:31). The oldest extant philological treatise on Arabic proverbs is the eighth century Kitab al-Amthal (Book of Proverbs) of Mufaddal Ibn Salamah al-Dabbi. Ibn Salamah, who died sometime in the second century of the Hijra, was a Kufan philologist and an authority on pre-Islamic poetry. His work on proverbs, one of the best known collections of Classical Arabic proverbs, was among his many works on a variety of subjects (Lichtenstadter, 1913:489; Goldziher, 1966:35).

Abu 'Ubayd al-Qasim b. Sallam al-Harawi, a philologist, jurist and theologian born in Heart in 770 C.E., continued the work of Ibn Salamah. Al-Harawi's book, the Kitab al-Amthal (Book of Proverbs), also called al-Majalla (The Review), was printed in Constantinople as part one of at-Tuhfa al-Bahiya (Goldziher, 1966:35).

Hamza al-Isfahani's 10th century collection survives in manuscript form. This collection deals with proverbs in the afa'lu min verbal form and was used extensively by later writers; it was, for example, "copied word for word by al-Maidani for the corresponding section of his book" (Brockelman 1913c:409). 

Building upon the works of Ibn Salamah and al-Harawi was another philologist, Abu Hilal al-Askari, who died around 1005 C.E. Al-Askari's Jamharat al-Amthal (Collection of Proverbs), printed posthumously in Bombay in 1306-07, dealt more comprehensively with the classical proverbs than did the collections of his predecessors (Brockelman, 1913a:489; Goldziher, 1966:35); it was the first attempt to annotate each proverb from the philological and historical point of view, excluding all post-classical material, to which al-Isfahani had alloted considerable space (Brockelman, 1913c:419).

The best known and most comprehensive of the early Arabic proverb studies is the Kitab Majma' al-Amthal (Book of Collected Proverbs) of Ahmad b. Muhammad al-Maydani, another philologist. Al-Maydani, who died October 27, 1124, gathered together material collected by his forerunners and "expanded each section by an appendix on modern proverbs" (Brockelman, 1913c:419). Al-Maydani's Kitab, still extant in several manuscripts and regarded as a standard book on Arabic proverbs, appeared in two volumes, and offers material on "ancient Arabic household words and proverbs, with very important explanatory notes on poetry" (Brockelman, 1913c:409; Goldziher, 1966:35; cf. Brockelman, 1913b:144-145). 

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 11:2000 & Issue 12:2000, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

Native generic terminology must of course be studied and considered, but folk definitions cannot be expected to fulfill analytical needs any more than scholarly definitions can be considred very useful in a folk system; to expect lay informants to develop logical and exclusive analytical definitions seems a bit ludicrous. In fact, such definitions may defeat the purpose of circularity. To the analyst, it clouds the issue, but the very murkiness and non-exclusiveness of folk terminology combined with the human ability to ignore logical discrepancies provides security, for the circular system is a closed system which answers its own questions. Until clear etic standards can be established for defining such phenomena as "proverbs," "maxims," "similies," and "wisdom," for analytical purposes the most promising solution to the problem of definition is to establish working definitions based on the purpose at hand.


Previously published in Proverbium 3 (1986), pp. 179-194.
Permission to publish this article granted by Proverbium (Editor: Prof. Wolfgang Mieder, University of Vermont, USA). 

AUTHOR's NOTE: In the interest of simplified printing, a modified transcription system has been adopted for Arabic words in this paper. The letter 'ain and hamza are both indicated with '. Long vowels and emphatic consonants are not indicated as such.

1 The Jahiliyya means the "Time of Ignorance," that is, the pre-Islamic era in the Arabian Peninsula. 

2 The Hijra, "Migration," refers to the Prophet Mahammad's escape from Mecca to Medina in 622 C.E. The Islamic calendar dates from that time. 

3 Literacy rates for the Arab countries in 1984 varied from 12% in North Yemen to 80% in Kuwait. See The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1984 (New york: Newspaper Enterprise Association, 1984). Because of increased population, however, the 300,000 people who comprise the 20% illiterate of Kuwait nearly equal in number the 322,000 total population of that country in 1964. The same principle holds true thrughout the Arab World; in fact, the current illiterate populations of some countries (Bahrain, Iraq, Libya, Mauretania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, South Yemen) exceed the total populations of those countries twenty years ago. 

4 Hadith means "narrative" or "talk." With the definite article al it is used in the special sense meaning a "Tradition of the Prophet" (hadith nabawi or al-hadith).

5 For a discussion of the relationship between literacy and oral poetry in Arab society, see Sowayan, 1980, expedially 168-179.


Abdelkafi, Mohamed. 1968. One Hundred Arabic Proverbs from Libya (London: Vernon and Yates).

Barakat, Robert A. 1980. A Contextual Study of Arabic Proverbs (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Academia Scientiarum Fennica). FF Communication No. 226.

Ben Amos, Dan, ed. 1976. Folklore Genres (Austin: University of Texas Press).

Brockelman, C. 1913a. "al-'Askari," The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Vol. 1 (Leyden: E. J. Brill): 489.

___________. 1913b. "al-Maydani," The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Vol. 3 (Leyden: E.J. Brill): 144-145.

___________. 1913c. "Mathal," The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Vol. 3 (Leyden: E.J. Brill):407-410.

Buckhardt, John Lewis. 1972. Arabic Proverbs; or, the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, 3rd ed. (London: Curzon Press).

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Proverbs, Sayings and Popular Wisdom - Audio Proverbs in English and Romance Languages, Proverb Studies, Proverb Collections, International Proverb Bibliographies


De Proverbio – Latin for ‘About the Proverb’ – is a website devoted to proverbs in several languages. It was founded in January 1995 at the University of Tasmania, Australia. De Proverbio was the world’s first refereed electronic journal of international proverb studies. It’s inspiration was Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship edited by Prof. Wolfgang Mieder at the University of Vermont. The Yearbook continued the tradition of Proverbium: Bulletin d’Information sur les Recherches Parémiologiques, published occasionally from 1965 to 1975 by the Society for Finnish Literature, Helsinki.

Recently, the website has added audio proverbs in six languages, read by native speakers.  Also available for the lovers of languages and their proverbial richess is a page of multilingual proverb crosswords.

Proverbs and Their Definition

From time immemorial proverbs have fascinated people of all ages and from all walks of life. As it happened throughout centuries, common people today still avail themselves of the proverb’s rich oral tradition to convey their culture and values, while scholars collect and study them from a wide range of angles: linguistic, social, psychological, political, historical and so on.

Proverbs by James Chapman - cat
A cat in mittens won’t catch mice

The problem of proverb definition is still open. However, it is broadly accepted that proverbs were born from man’s experience. And that they generally express, in a very succinct way, common-sense truths. They give sound advice and reflect the human condition. But, as we know, human nature is both good and bad and the latter is often mirrored by discriminatory proverbs, be they against women, different nationalities or particular social groups. For a thorough discussion of proverb definition, see Popular Views of the Proverb by Prof. Wolfgang Mieder. Another article which sheds some light on the proverb definition is The Wisdom of Many and the Wit of One by Archer Taylor.

Proverbs and Their Origin

As to the origin of proverbs we tend to assume that they were born in times when human society began to self-impose rules and embrace principles necessary for communal living. Research can trace them back only to the time when language was recorded by means of some type of writing. The Sumerian civilisation of more than five thousand years ago is the oldest known civilisation to have made use of proverbs, some of which have been passed on through its cuneiform inscriptions.

One such proverb, in its Latin version, is Canis festinans caecos parit catulos. It spread to other languages. The English translation is The hasty bitch brings forth blind whelps. In French, it became La chienne dans sa hâte a mis bas des chiots aveugles. In the Italian La gatta frettolosa fece i gattini ciechi, the bitch has been replaced by the cat. The Portuguese version is Cadelas apressadas parem cães tortos, and the Romanian, Căţeaua de pripă îşi naşte căţeii fără ochi.

Proverbs and Their Use

Apart from use on a wide scale in day-to-day speech, there is ample evidence that proverbs were essential tools in teaching and learning. The pedagogical use of proverbs was encountered first in Sumerian society and subsequently this use became widespread throughout Medieval Europe.

Proverbs by James Chapman - book
A book is like a garden carried in the pocket

Proverbs and proverbial expressions are found in religious manuscripts of the first half of the eighth century. The aim of introducing proverbs into religious texts was to help novices to learn Latin, and this practice became widespread by the tenth century.

The use of proverbs in teaching and learning was not circumscribed to England. Relatively new research attests to the use of proverbs in teaching in the eleventh century in Liège, France. In Italy the famous medical School of Salerno of the eleventh century formulated medical precepts which later became proverbs adopted by different cultures. Post prandium stabis, post coenam ambulabis was translated After dinner sit awhile, after supper walk a mile in English. In French became Après dîner repose un peu, après souper promène une mille, while in Italian Dopo pranzo riposar un poco, dopo cena passeggiar un miglio. The Spanish version is Después de yantar reposad un poco, después de cenar pasead una milla and the Portuguese Depois de jantar, dormir; depois de cear, passos mil.

Proverbs and Their Abuse

But from use comes abuse, as a Spanish proverb says.  There is no doubt that the capacity of the proverb to convey universal truths concisely led to their abuse and manipulation.

Hitler and his Nazi regime employed proverbs as emotional slogans for propaganda purposes and encouraged the publication of anti-semitic proverb collections. For a thorough analysis of this phenomenon, please read the fascinating article “ … as if I were the master of situation.” Proverbial Manipulation in Adolf Hitler by Prof. Wolfgang Mieder.

At the opposite end of the political spectrum, communist regimes of the past have not only manipulated proverbs, but also purged popular collections of features which did not reflect their political ends. The former Soviet regime is at the forefront of such actions. One type of manipulation described by Jean Breuillard in Proverbes et pouvoir politique: Le cas de l’U.R.S.S.  (published in “Richesse du proverbe”, Eds. François Suard and Claude Buridant. Lille: Université de Lille, 1984. II, 155-166). It consisted in modifying ancient proverbs like La vérité parcourt le monde (Truth spreads all over the world) into La vérité de Lénine parcourt le monde (Lenin’s truth spreads all over the world). As a result the new creation is unequivocably charged with a specific ideological message.

Manipulation did not stop at individual proverbs, it extended to entire collections. Vladimir Dal’s mid-nineteen century collection of Russian proverbs is such an example. Its first Soviet edition (1957) reduces the proverbs containing the word God from 283 to 7 only. Instead, those which express compassion for human weaknesses, such as alcoholism, disappear altogether. In more recent years, in Ceauşescu’s Romania, Proverbele românilor (published in 1877 by I. C. Hinţescu) suffered the same treatment. More than 150 proverbs were eliminated or changed in order to respond rigidly to the communist ideology.

Proverbs Across Time and Space

The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs states that foreign proverbs’ contribution to the English proverbial stock has enriched our language. Many proverbs of foreign origin were quickly absorbed into English life and have a rightful place in an English dictionary. Indeed, a close scrutiny of that dictionary reveals that more than two hundred and fifty proverbs are listed as first existing in Italian.

This is also true for other modern languages, particularly French and Spanish. The translation is not always literal. At times it is adapted to the new language and the resulting proverb is often enriched in its expression. For instance the Latin Homo sine pecunia est imago mortis (A man without money is the image of death) is rather closely translated in Italian as Uomo senza quattrini è un morto che cammina (A man without money is a dead man walking).

However, in other languages the metaphor changes, but not the meaning. In English the proverb becomes A man without money is a bow without an arrow, while in French Un homme sans argent / Est un loup sans dents (A man without money is a wolf without teeth) and an element of rhyme is introduced. The Romanian adaptation is a real poetic gem Omul fără bani e ca pasărea fără aripi; Când dă să zboare / Cade jos şi moare (A man without money is like a bird without wings; When he tries to fly / He falls down and dies). The concept is essentially the same: the man without money lacks something important…

Proverbs Today

Proverbs by James Chapman - egg and hen
The egg thinks it’s smarter than the hen

While proverbs are still used today in a traditional way, that is in speech, literature and teaching, they have found a new ever expanding use in the advertising industry and in the mass media. One example is Here today, gone tomorrow, which became Hair today, gone tomorrow in the hair-removal industry. In the mass media it has a variety of paraphrases such as Hear today, gone tomorrow or Heir today, gone tomorrow. Before the Barcelona Olympic Games the old proverb All roads lead to Rome became All roads lead to… Barcelona in many English language newspapers and magazines. A new phenomenon encountered in many languages nowadays and is undoubtedly a sign of the proverb’s resilience and vitality.

Important writers of the past, among them Goethe and Voltaire, have questioned the traditional wisdom of proverbs. That led to some proverb transformations. Prof. Wolfgang Mieder coined the term anti-proverb for all forms of creative proverb changes. They can be deliberate innovations, alterations, variations, parodies. Anti-proverbs are widely spread today, some living a short time, some even making their way into recent proverb collections. A new broom sweeps clean, but the old one knows the corners and Absence makes the heart grow fonder – for somebody else are considered anti-proverbs.

Proverbs and Their Collection

Apart from studies on individual and multilingual proverbs and proverbial expressions, you will find a few e-books on our website. I will mention a Brazilian collection and a dictionary of equivalent English and Romanian proverbs. Prof. Wolfgang Mieder’s yearly bibliographies are an invaluable tool for students and researchers. Given their widespread use over the millennia, it is no wonder that scholars of the past started assembling proverbs in collections. Aristotle is believed to be among the first paremiographers (collectors of proverbs), but, unfortunately, his collection was lost. In more recent times a great impetus to the collection of proverbs was given by Erasmus. His fame spread from Venice throughout Europe after the publication in 1508 of his Adagiorum Chiliades. This collection contained 3,260 proverbs drawn from classical authors.

The success of the book led to several augmented editions culminating with that of 1536, which contains 4,151 proverbs. Erasmus’ work was translated into several European languages. While it became the model for future proverb collections in those languages, they were widely copied and translated.

One good example of such a practice is the 1591 Italian collection Giardino di Ricreatione, nel quale crescono fronde, fiori e frutti, vaghe, leggiadri e soavi, sotto nome di sei miglia proverbii, e piacevoli riboboli Italiani, colti e scelti da Giovanni Florio. And two decades later appeared in French as Le Jardin de Récréation, au quel croissent rameaux, fleurs et fruits très-beaux, gentils et souefs, soubz le nom de Six mille proverbes et plaisantes rencontres françoises, recueillis et triéez par GOMÈS DE TRIER, non seulement utiles mais délectables pour tous espritz désireux de la très-noble et copieuse langue françoise, nouvellement mis en lumière, à Amsterdam, par PAUL DE RAVESTEYN.

Proverbs and Fun

Proverbs by James Chapman - duck
If the world flooded, it wouldn’t matter to the duck

On the less academic side, you can test your knowledge of languages by solving our bilingual or multilingual crosswords. Or, you can listen to our featured proverbs in 6 languages – English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish. Also, enjoy sharing them with your friends. Some were posted on Twitter as comments to political events of the day.

Painters in Renaissance time, from Hieronymus Bosch to Pieter Bruegel, with his famous Netherlandish Proverbs, were attracted by the subject.

Modern artists like James Chapman illustrated recently proverbs from other world languages with hilarious cartoons. See some of his images on this page.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 11:2000 & Issue 12:2000, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

Webster, Sheila K. 1982. "Women, Sex and Marriage in Moroccan Proverbs," International Journal of Middle East Studies 14:173-184.

___________. 1984. "The Shadow of a Noble Man: Honor and Shame in Arabic Proverbs," Ph. D. Dissertation, Indiana University.

Westermarck, Edward A. 1930. Wit and Wisdom in Morocco: A Study of Native Proverbs (London: George Routledge and Sons).

Sheila K. Webster
Department of English
Taliaferro Hall 2117
University of Maryland
College Park, Maryland 20742


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The banner illustration is a fragment of Pieter Bruegel's painting "The Netherlandish Proverbs", 1559